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'Twain's America' Drifts on Novelty of 3-D Images

July 02, 1998|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With his latest Imax 3-D film, "Mark Twain's America," director Stephen Low ("Across the Sea of Time") has brought a curiously old-fashioned and at the same time high-tech gloss to one of the longest-lived cottage industries in American social and literary history: Twainiana.

This brief documentary is a must-see for Twain fans--but only because it has original stereo-optic archival photos of the Great Author showing him in his familiar white linen suit looking, with his aureole of white hair, like a forebear of Colonel Sanders. Civil War buffs may also get a charge out of scenes from a stagy reenactment of the battle of Antietam.

Otherwise, "Mark Twain's America" generates no more excitement than you'd get from a nicely illustrated introductory lecture to a children's museum exhibit--even though the life and times of our wittiest, arguably greatest, 19th century novelist is made of dazzling stuff.

As anybody familiar with his legend knows, the adventures of Twain rival those of his most adventurous literary creation, the title character of "Huckleberry Finn" (who gets scant mention here). Huck's inferior, Tom Sawyer, gets more attention--a sure sign of misplaced priorities for a meaningful treatment of Twain's America.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, the author grew up from the age of 4 in Hannibal, Mo., the town on the Mississippi indelibly associated with him. He quit school at 12, worked as a printer and left home for good at 17, eventually to become a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, a Confederate soldier (for two weeks), a silver miner in the Nevada Territory, then journalist, sagebrush bohemian, world traveler in the Gilded Age, promoter, bankrupt entrepreneur of newfangled inventions and publisher.

All of this is touched upon with 3-D stills, interspersed with location filming (also in 3-D) of the annual July 4th parade and fireworks in Hannibal, the facade of Twain's boyhood home, a latter-day Mississippi riverboat paddling loudly up river, a train ride on the railroad that took Twain to Nevada, the interior of the mansion Twain built for his family in Hartford, Conn., and so on.

Though admirable for its good intentions, "Mark Twain's America" drifts along less admirably without dramatic conflict, a meandering narrative with no discernible climax that seems at times merely to demonstrate the novelty of 3-D imagery. It is, moreover, far too humorless to capture the spirit of its subject.

* MPAA rating G. Times guidelines: family entertainment, appropriate for children.

'Mark Twain's America'

With Capt. Dennis Trone, Mike Tackett and Jay Tackett playing themselves.

A co-production of Sony Pictures Classics and Ogden Entertainment of a film by Stephen Low. Written, directed and produced by Low. Director of photography Andrew Kitzanuk. Film editor and producer James Lahti. Executive producers Mitchell Cannold, Isaac Palmer and Jonathan Stern. Line producer and production manager Charles Braive. Narrated by Anne Bancroft. Music by Alan Williams. Running time: 40 minutes.

BE THERE

Mark Twain's America at the Edwards Imax Theatre at the Irvine Spectrum, 65 Fortune Drive, Irvine, (714) 832-4629; and the UltraScreen Theater at Ontario Mills, 4553 Mills Circle, Ontario, (909) 481-4442.

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